Rat infestations and soaring suicide rates – what’s happened to our prisons under the Tories?

Published date
12 Jul 2018
After years of funding cuts, the criminal justice system is on the verge of total collapse

Once upon a time the Conservatives proudly called themselves the party of law and order.

But successive Tory governments have slashed funding for the criminal justice system so much that the system could collapse entirely.

Now prison unions are demanding ministers engage with them to end the crisis before it's too late.

And they're calling for the government to restore prison staffing to safe levels as soon as possible.

The Ministry of Justice often gets forgotten when we talk about austerity, but the dire state of the criminal justice system shows that it should be getting much more attention.

Dickensian conditions

According to a recent report by Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, conditions in some prisons were “disgraceful” and “should not be accepted in the 21st century”.

Of the 39 prisons that Clarke inspected, conditions had deteriorated in 14.

Clarke described conditions in rat-infested Liverpool prison as “the worst he’d ever seen” and warned that Nottingham was “fundamentally unsafe” due to the high number of suicides.

The report also found that staff and prisoners were suffering as a direct result of funding cuts.

Spending on the prison service has been slashed by 21% in the period between 2009/10 and 2015/16.

And there were 29,000 assaults in prisons in England and Wales in 2017-18 — a 93 per cent increase since 2007-08.

Over the same period, incidents of self-harm have surged by 91 per cent to reach 44,000.

Warnings ignored

The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) was highlighting this crisis well before Clarke’s report was published.

And as recently as April, the POA wrote to Justice Secretary David Gauke to raise the alarm about violence in prisons following a fall in the number of full-time equivalent prison officers from 24,830 in 2010 to 21,000 in 2017.

A system in crisis

The Criminal Bar Association has now joined forces with a host of solicitors to take unprecedented action against changes to the Advocates Guaranteed Fees Scheme , which they say would make it untenable for many barristers to undertake cases.

The proposed changes come on top of savage cuts to legal aid that have already restricted access to legal advice, put 20% of legal aid providers out of business in the five years to 2017, and caused such low-morale among barristers that a third are thinking of leaving the profession.

Talk to any probation officer at the National Association of Prison Officers and they’ll tell you eye-watering tales of the destructive impact of the privatisation.

The probation service has also been fragmented by a process that was forced through against the advice of criminal justice unions by then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.

Offenders on probation wait for months without support from the Community Rehabilitation Companies that cover “low-risk” cases and the national probation service, meaning opportunities for valuable interventions are lost.

Meanwhile, a host of providers who misjudged the potential profits of privatising justice are now facing collapse at a cost of millions to the taxpayer .

Breaking point

Enough is enough.

The Conservatives used to boast about their law and order credentials, but their obsession with austerity has driven the system to breaking point.

For all our sakes, they need to think again.